Milunka Lazarević: “Tal is my Zeus”

by Diana Mihajlova
12/31/2021 – Nona Gaprindashvili wrote referring to Milunka Lazarevic: “A literary person by profession, lively and impressionable, Lazarevic is one of the brightest figures in women’s chess of the sixties”. Milunka attracted attention by her exciting, uncompromising style: sacrificing pawns and pieces and despising draws, which made her famous and endeared her to chess audiences! | Photo: Balkan Chess

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Tal is my Zeus

Read part 1 of Lazarevic’s portrait

Such creativity, a love for sacrifices and fierce, uncompromising style brought her the moniker ‘female Tal’. 

But her connection to Tal is much deeper than that. A very strong mutual respect and appreciation of each other that amounted to some platonic love linked them and remained with them throughout their lives.  

Of the fifteen world champions, I met twelve, not to mention the candidates for world champions. Basically, I have met everybody that was a known chess personality in my lifetime. The only world chess champion who was not only the world chess champion but the most wonderful person I have met in my entire life, was Mikhail Tal, the lightning of our era.
We met quite young when he made his debut at the inter-zonal tournament in Portoroz in 1958, and I played at the Yugoslav Women Championship in another close-by town.   

Tal played the most beautiful and the most wonderful chess. He is my chess Zeus. A person like him will not be born again. Now that he is gone, everyone admits that he was a genius, but during his time everyone disputed him. While he was alive, they received his sacrifices with scepticism. Now, in Kasparov’s books My Great Predecessors, after the computer analysis, his sacrifices are not considered ‘semi-correct’ as they were in his time, but the human mind could not perceive the truth about Tal... The chess that he played cannot be learnt. He has no followers. One needs to be born with it. It is not enough to say that he was a genius. He was out of this world... 

Milunka reminiscences on the 1959 Candidates tournament in Bled where a match was played between Tal and Smyslov:  “...Tal would sacrifice one piece after another, and after winning the game he came up to me as I was seated in the front row of the auditorium and told me: ‘I did it for you, madam!’”  

A gossip was rife at the time that she had an affair with Smyslov, and that Tal particularly relished beating him 2½-1½ in this mini match, which was their first over-the-board confrontation. 

 

Mikhail Tal, Vasily Smyslov

Tal and Smyslov at the Candidates Tournament in Bled, Yugoslavia, 1959 | Photo: chessgames.com 

Milunka talks with tenderness about Tal’s unordinary simplicity and modesty: “He was absolutely uninterested in material gains. If I had told him, ‘Misha, there is a tournament in a little village close to Belgrade, we would love it if you could attend’, he would have said: ‘Okay, Milunka’. He did not carry anything in his suitcase. He never bought anything. Money for him had no significance whatsoever; it was just a burden to him. Never was and never will be another one like him”.

As Milunka was a star in the Soviet Union, Tal enjoyed an amazing popularity in Yugoslavia and particularly in Belgrade.

One day we were walking to the playing hall. Streets were lined up with students, people were leaning over balconies applauding and calling his name. There were ‘orders’: ‘Misha, sacrifice the rook to Fischer!; Misha, today sacrifice the knight!’ At one moment, a group of students just lifted him and carried him up in their arms. I was running behind them, anxious that something might happen to him. People were making space for them to pass, policemen stopped quietly aside. But, he was loved everywhere. I was present in America at one of his tournaments. People adored him over there, too. He was a miracle. 

Milunka and Tal maintained a close friendship until Misha’s dying hours:

I will always remember Tal’s last days. He had dropped to 30 kilograms. I found a doctor, in fact, a bio-energetician. Nana Alexandria wrote that I had convinced him that it would help him to pull through. And he did recover. He came to 40 kilograms. And then, an important football match was played. Tal loved football. He went to the stadium against the doctors’ advice... He was unique. He had to burn in order that he may enlighten our era.

Mikhail Tal

Mikhail Tal at one of the many tournaments he played in Yugoslavia; his name and his title ‘grandmaster’ written in Serbo-Croat | Photo: Sah-mat-lista blog

Milunka also had a significant relationship with Kasparov, which however ended on a negative note. At first, she was friendly and supportive of the young, promising player. He ‘bought’ her when once he told her: “If Fischer would ever return to play chess, I would carry the pieces for him”. That was in 1981, at a tournament in Bugojno in Yugoslavia.

But, once he got the title he started showing an overinflated sense of superiority. When in 1992 Fischer and Spassky played the renewed match in St Stefan in Montenegro, Kasparov gave a statement: “Too big a fund for two pensioners”. This, as well as his supporting the 1992 bombardment of Yugoslavia and a number of gauche pronouncements, caused her a great dislike of him.  

Kasparov did not only disappoint me, he personally insulted me by asking to intensify the bombing of Belgrade and to bomb the whole of Serbia during the war. And I was so much supportive of him. His aunt Riga always says, “We will never forget what you did for our Gary”. When I went recently to Moscow Clara, Kasparov's mother sent her driver to meet me at the airport and to drive me around. She presented me with his books. She remembers, but she cannot influence her son. It doesn’t matter; despite the fact of what he did and all that meddling of his in politics, it must be admitted that the greatest chess achievements are his. Chess has progressed a lot. But he picked up everything from his predecessors, and I think, if we were looking for perfection, who played the most perfect chess, in the most diverse way among the world champions, then that is definitely Kasparov.

She had a high regard for Anand, both as a player and as a person. And, after she watched a game of the boy Magnus, she told his father: “Your son will be the future world champion”.

A fighter for better conditions for women’s chess

If the men/women chess divide still exists today, in Milunka’s time the gap was even much wider. She left a lasting mark as a fighter for recognition and professional conditions for women chess players. 

She was the President of the FIDE Commission for Women’s Chess from 1970 to 1978, every year selected with 100% votes. She was very persuasive, and she used her role to bring about many changes: in Skopje 1972, the men’s and women’s Olympiads were held for the first time together, and from 1976 onward they have been played simultaneously; women matches at the Olympiads played on three instead of on two boards; the title of Woman Grandmaster; World Women Youth Championship; rating system for women; a gold trophy for the three-time woman world champion, a silver trophy for the challenger. 

At home, she managed to convince the Belgrade mayor to grant the organization of an international women’s tournament to be held in the Yugoslav capital. The 8th March Tournament that she organized was launched in 1965. It grew into one of the best and strongest competitions for women after the candidates tournament and, after Hastings and Wijk aan Zee, the longest running competition in the world. It brought to Belgrade the world’s greatest female players.

All women chess players dreamed of coming to play in that tournament. It became a meeting place for the world women’s chess elite.

Milunka Lazarevic

Milunka addressed the audience at the Opening of the 50th edition of the super tournament for women in 2018, just a few months before her death | Screenshot from YouTube

She organised other important events including the Women Olympiads in Split (Yugoslavia) 1963, Oberhausen (West Germany) 1966, and Medellin (Columbia) 1974, the Korchnoi - Spassky match in Belgrade 1977, and the international super grandmaster tournament in Niksic (Yugoslavia) 1983. This tournament was organized on the occasion of the 60th birthday of another Yugoslav chess legend, Svetozar Gligoric, and it gathered a number of elite players from around the globe, including Petrosian, Tal, Spassky, Kasparov, Timman, Miles and Ljubojevic.

Tigran Petrosian, Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Tal

Some of the stars in Niksic 1983 — Petrosian, Kasparov and Tal seated on the right | Photo: Sah-mat-lista blog

She was the first Yugoslav woman International Arbiter, and in her later years, after she stopped playing active chess, apart from organizing, she also arbitrated at many important chess events.  

In 1985, she received a special recognition from the Georgian Soviet Federation for her contribution to the development of chess in the world. 

On her 80th birthday, and on the occasion of celebrating the Serbian Day of Statehood, 15 February, the President of Serbia, Tomislav Nikolić, decorated Milunka with the Third Degree Order Sretenji, for special merits and for having achieved extraordinary results in chess.

Milunka Lazarevic

Milunka receiving the Third Degree Order for her chess achievements | Photo: Balkan Chess

I had the privilege of knowing Milunka personally and attended her chess lessons for a while. In Paris, where I spent time as a student, I played in the club of another Yugoslav chess master, Milinka Merlini (1929, Tuckovo, Yugoslavia – 1996 Paris), who was a close friend of Milunka.

Milinka was a member of the Yugoslav national team in the years 1950-60, a champion of Belgrade and of Yugoslavia in 1960. She emigrated to Paris in 1961, established herself as a chess player and trainer and was five times French woman champion (1975, 76, 77, 78, 80).

As I was returning to Yugoslavia to take up my lecturing position at the Zagreb University, she recommended me to Milunka who was teaching chess in a club in central Zagreb, and she accepted me as her student. I remember her as a rather stern but passionate teacher who, whenever some of us would make a particularly good move, would exclaim with joy: that is a colossal move! My academic duties got the better of me and I did not take advantage of this opportunity for very long, but I was lucky to have known, however briefly, an extraordinary person to whom chess represented, in her words, ‘a symbiosis of all arts’.  

One thing remains for me shrouded in mystery: I do not know why Milunka was living in Zagreb at that time, around 1981-82. I did not come across any mention throughout my extensive research. My enquiries addressed to both the Serbian and the Croatian Chess Federations did not provide a satisfactory answer.  

Milinka Merlini

Milinka Merlini, on the left while still in Yugoslavia; on the right, in Paris commenting on the 1972 Fischer – Spassky match | Photo: Heritage des Echecs Francais

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A former university lecturer in Romance philology, she is currently a painter as well as a chess journalist, and reports regularly from the international tournament scene.

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